Minnesota Senate Republicans want to dismantle Minneapolis Public Schools and create six smaller school districts in an attempt to close one of the state’s largest achievement gaps between white and minority students.
Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, says this is a way to overhaul a system that has been failing year after year.
“In order to change results and the achievement gap, you have to think about how to change the system, how do you make it more responsive to the parents that it serves,” Hann said at a news conference.
The plan faces stiff opposition in the DFL-controlled Senate, but it is renewing debate about how best to manage the state’s most troubled school district. Last school year, less than half the district’s students passed state accountability tests, compared with 58.8 percent statewide. Results were even lower for the district’s students of color. Less than a quarter of the district’s black students passed the exams.
Hann said he devised the idea after hearing comments from Minneapolis elected officials who saw systemic failures in the school district.
Under the proposal, the current Minneapolis school board would dictate how to divide the district, which serves about 35,000 children. In 2017, residents would elect six new boards and the new districts would start classes in September 2018. If the Minneapolis school board does not come to an agreement on breaking up the districts, the governor could step in.
“I think everybody acknowledges there are extreme problems in the performance of the Minneapolis School District when you look at the results,” said Sen. Sean Nienow, R-Cambridge. “Something has to be done. What else is on the table? Nothing.”
Minneapolis school board chairwoman Jenny Arneson expressed strong opposition to the proposal, saying it is telling that none of the legislators from Minneapolis were involved in devising the plan.
“If [Hann’s] automatic response is to dismantle the system, I disagree with that,” Arneson said. “There are other ways of addressing the achievement gap.”
Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, who serves on the education committee, said this isn’t the first time that a member of the minority caucus has tried to meddle with Minneapolis schools.
“I find it interesting that these members never had a conversation with us,” Torres Ray said. “I cannot take this seriously.”
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, said that dividing the district would create enormous bureaucratic hassles and put lower-income students at an even greater disadvantage, exacerbating funding disparities and educational opportunities for all Minneapolis students.
“If [Hann] was sincere, he would have had a conversation about this plan with us,” Dibble said. “Let’s talk about things that really work. This grabs headlines, but it doesn’t seem like a sincere effort to address the achievement gap.”
Republicans have long wanted to implement significant changes at the state’s two most urban school districts, where they say student achievement lags and costs are high. In 2010, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, proposed turning over public schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul to their respective mayors. Pawlenty was drawing on approaches used in other states, which have had mixed success. At the time, Pawlenty’s proposal was roundly criticized by the DFL mayors of both cities.
Michael Goar, the Minneapolis public school’s interim superintendent, said the district is making gains in its graduation rates. He said the district is already looking at ways to downsize its central office and give schools more resources. In the next month, Goar will cut or move about a third of the administrative staff and refocus the money and resources on the schools.
“We are actively decentralizing many services previously provided by our Davis Center administrative departments to allow greater decision-making by our school leaders who are working with our students each and every day,” Goar said.
Torres Ray sees in the proposal the potential for segregation, with some of the proposed smaller districts having high concentrations of poverty and not enough resources to meet students’ needs.
“It’s fascinating that Republicans talk about eliminating layers of bureaucracy, and now they want to create six,” Torres Ray said. “That means six different school boards, six different superintendents and six administrations. I don’t understand how those two go together.”
Hann said he took inspiration from former Minneapolis school board member Alberto Monserrate and state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who have both said that the school district is too bureaucratic. Before his term ended, Monserrate said at a school board meeting that he was doubtful that the state’s third-largest school district could reinvent itself
Hann envisions smaller school districts where the district have more autonomy from state mandates and parents are highly involved in the decision-making.
The senator is not looking to tell the city how to draw the district’s boundaries but instead is sending a message that the district cannot continue in its current form.
“When you cannot graduate more than half your students, that’s a massive failure and we need to do something dramatic,” Hann said.